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What Is it Like Living Without a Pancreas?

By Nina Kramer ; Updated July 27, 2017

While there are many people who believe it’s impossible to live without a pancreas, it is in fact possible. Until recent years, it wasn't possible because, without a pancreas, a person would be unable to digest food and, therefore, eat. Severe diabetes was also likely. But in recent times, with the development of medical regimens to replace what the pancreas normally produces, life without a pancreas became possible----even a fairly normal life. Some people living today without a pancreas say it is not difficult; but others say it is.

The Pancreas

The pancreas---sometimes described as “pistol” like in shape---sits behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. It produces enzymes (digestive juices) which are essential for digestion of food; they break down three essential nutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Hormones are also manufactured by the pancreas, the most important of which is insulin. Insulin regulates glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream; when there’s not enough insulin in the body, glucose builds up in the bloodstream and diabetes is likely to occur.

How is the Pancreas Lost?

Normally, the pancreas functions without problems; but when they occur they’re severe and “often fatal,” the CS Cedars-Sinai Research and Education Medical Center reports on its website. Pancreatitis is the most common: digestive juices are released into the bloodstream and not into the duct that leads to the small intestine---areas where the enzymes act on foods. This can cause acute pain, nausea, fever and even kidney failure. If repeated attacks occur, permanent scarring and pancreatic dysfunction occur. Loss of the pancreas can be due to pancreatic cancer, but it is relatively uncommon.

Life Without A Pancreas

To live without a pancreas, patients must take pancreatic-enzyme supplements to be able to eat and insulin to regulate blood-sugar levels. These medications must be taken as prescribed---and for the rest of the lives of those without a pancreas. Usually, there is a period of adjustment as the dosages and schedules are fine tuned.

Living Without Difficulty

One person living without a pancreas "feels great"----as stated on the website steadyhealth.com. Another person, writing on the same site, found the first year without a pancreas a "nightmare" of adjustment; but once he was on the right enzyme count and food, he had very little pain. A mother on the site describes her son who, at 11 days, had part of his pancreas removed and, at 21 days, the entire pancreas. He's now 20 years old, takes four insulin shots a day and, with each meal and snack, a pancreatic-enzyme supplement. She describes her son as "very healthy."

Living with Difficulty

Some people report difficulties: diarrhea, severe pain---usually after meals---and nausea. A wife tells of her husband with "constant" diarrhea and "constant pain."

Transplants

Transplant of the pancreas is an option. So, too, in some patients, is transplant of the islet cells which produce insulin. One patient had these cells transplanted to his liver, where insulin is being produced in his body. He takes pancreatic enzymes but doesn't need to take insulin.

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